Having lost nearly $1 billion in its first year in Canada, and facing more multimillion-dollar losses, Target announced on Thursday it would discontinue its operations in Canada and close its 133 stores. While the news of them closing should not be a surprise, the speed in which they left feels pretty shocking. They didn’t even make the 2-year anniversary of the new store.
1. Target just wasn’t different.
Brands really only have four choices: they can better, different, cheaper or not around for long. For Target in the US, they have always taken the “different” positioning–focused on cool suburban moms, broader offering. But in Canada, Target basically became Wal-Mart with red paint. They never found a way to separate themselves to be seen as different enough to get “new consumers” to try it out and yet they seemed to disappoint those potential loyal consumers who had already bought into the US version of Target.
2. The suburban positioning already taken in Canada
In the US market, Wal-Mart grew up through the 70s and 80s as a small town or even a rural brand, providing the opportunity for Target to become the suburban version of Wal-Mart. But even looking at pure demographics, Canada has the biggest middle class population in the world, the population is very concentrated to six main cities, where as in the US there are many small towns scattered throughout. When Wal-Mart entered Canada, they purchased the retail footprint of Woolco, which was a suburban brand. The Wal-Mart strategy in Canada closely resembled what Target had done in the US: going after suburban moms, new/fresh stores, big wide/clean aisles making for a better shopping experience than in the Wal-Mart stores in the US.
3. The Low priced clothing for cool moms positioning was already taken in Canada
Loblaws is the biggest food retailer and are known for a) copying great retailers around the world b) attacking their competitors viciously. While originally a grocery store, the Loblaws stores have become a mass merchandiser store where you can get the same low-priced clothing for the cool moms, via the JOE FRESH brand. This took away a potential competitive advantage for Target to leverage.
4. Target invested too much and too fast in new locations and new employees
Target launched 133 stores and hired 17,000 employees in Canada–almost half of Wal-Mart’s footprint in Canada, who have been here for 20 years. Taking on the leases of Zellers and then fixing up their locations was costly and crippling to the operations.Target tried to do way too much too soon–hurting their ability to deliver the same experience they are delivering in the US. Target had two strategic choices at launch: a) pick limited locations and do it right or b) cover everywhere in Canada as a preventative strategy against competitive attacks. They decided to be everywhere, and as we can see did a very bad job. They should have staggered their launch by starting with Toronto only, expanding to key markets as they established themselves and managed to create a loyal following. Operations were awfully sloppy. The procurement system was so poorly run that empty store shelves were not uncommon. Given the empty stores, it’s hard to really blame a run on merchandising.
5. Target had no money left to actually drive demand
The best thing about Target is you could get a great parking spot, there were no crowds in the aisles and you didn’t have to line up to pay. Why? Because, there was no one there. As all the money went into the bricks and mortar of creating new stores, they had very little money left over for marketing. In the 18 months since launch, there was very little hype, no great advertising, no wonderful launch events, no press coverage, very little on social media. They never created the demand needed to drive revenue.
6. They didn’t have the same selection as their US stores
The most loyal Target shoppers in Canada had experienced the Target store in the US for years, whether they were cross border shopping or going to Target when they were vacationing in Florida, Arizona or California. And the biggest complaint they had about Target Canada is the lack of product breadth on the shelves. They were expecting the identical offering they saw in Target US. But that’s not a reality. Target is JUST a retailer at the mercy of what the manufacturers offer in Canada. There are numerous factors that impact the variety when it comes to Canadian manufacturers–the biggest being the relative size of listing fees that Canadian retailers demand are so big that launching smaller small skus just doesn’t make sense in Canada. The difference in government regulations will also alter what products can be available for sale.
7. Target US sales dropped the minute they announced they were going into Canada
Target is a very US centric brand, with Canada representing their first attempt at International–and it might be their last. As soon as they launched, they faced declining sales and share in the US. It was unrelated, but now Target management faced two issues at once–a turnaround strategy to solidify US sales and a launch strategy internationally. Anytime you divert your attention, you’re likely to mess one of them up, and the Canadian launch suffered.
8. The dropping Canadian dollar messed up their financial contributions
What is not mentioned very often is that the Canadian Dollar has fallen from relative parity when they were considering launching two years ago to 0.83 cents. That has a two-fold impact: the reporting of sales and profits internationally just took a 17% hit due to exchange and the imported items from the US just saw a big cost increase that will bite into the margins. With those loyal Target shoppers already upset that the Canadian and US prices are not equal, there was very little opportunity for Target to cover the impact of the dollar in their P&L.
9. Target saw very little risk to leaving
When they made the decision to exit Canada, they did so very quickly and from reading everything said this week by Target, they showed very little remorse. The opening of their press release started by telling the US manufacturers that this statement had zero impact on the US stores or their standing with manufacturers in the US. Rather than bite the full financial bullet, Target has asked for somewhat of a bankruptcy protection, like Chapter 11 in the US. I guess the question is “why are they asking for any protection?”. Yes, they said they would create a trust that would cover 16 weeks of severance pay for “most” of their employees. The “most” line caught my eye, which feels similar to that classic “Up to 70% off everything in store”. We shall see how fairly they treat ALL 17,000 employees. And will the protection get them out of leasehold agreements that leave malls empty and scrambling to fill them and will they treat the uniquely Canadian manufacturers the same as they treat their US manufacturers.
10. Their loyal consumers embraced Target more than Target embraced their consumers
When consumers care more than the brand, that brand is in trouble. And from what I can see, there still are many loyal Target consumers who are disappointed in the news. At Beloved Brands, we believe passion matters, because the more loved a brand is by consumers, the more powerful and profitable that brand will be. Target did very little to create love with consumers. Their promise lacked any real difference and they failed to tell their story to the Canadian marketplace. There was zero magic in the way they connected with consumers and zero magic in the experience in the stores.
Let this be a lesson to the next retailer who will venture into Canada
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